A recent piece in the NYT highlighted research from the sleep labs at Penn and Washington State University that has documented the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive functioning such as attention and decision making. This is a really interesting area of research and it made me think about the similarities between impairments due to sleep deprivation and impairments due to drinking alcohol or being drunk.
1. Sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption affect your performance and decision making in a dose-dependent manner. There is plenty of research showing that acute sleep deprivation and acute alcohol consumption can affect attention, memory, reaction time, decision making, etc. This is one way in which sleep can interact with our decisions regarding choices related to food and movement. However, what might be less appreciated is the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation, which also parallel the cumulative effects of heavy drinking. That is to say that research has shown that even small amounts of sleep deprivation can add up over time. Researchers call this “sleep debt” and some believe that it must be paid off in the form of catching up on sleep over successive nights – perhaps one of the truly refreshing aspects of taking a vacation.
2. Sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption affect different people differently. In the same way that different people can have a low or high tolerance for the effects of alcohol, some people have a low or high tolerance to the effects of sleep deprivation. Some people require more sleep than others, are more disrupted by sleep deprivation, and require more time to make up for lost sleep. This is why it is good to follow general guidelines regarding how much sleep you should get, but it is even better to be closely in tune with your body and to give yourself additional hours of sleep if you feel that you need it.
3. Sleep deprivation and alcohol consumption cause impairment without you fully knowing that you are impaired. This is perhaps one of the more sinister effects of alcohol that can lead to incidents of drunk driving. Alcohol causes impairments in attention and reaction time, but the person who is impaired feels as though they are not. Their awareness of their impairment has also been affected. Sleep deprivation produces similar effects. Indeed, studies such as the one profiled above have shown that people might report that they feel a bit sleepy, but that their sleepiness was not affecting their performance (sound at all like, “I’m ok to drive”) when in fact the sleep deprivation they had experienced significantly decreased their cognitive performance.
So, what do we take away from this? Sleep deprivation is a tricky thing. A little bit can add up over time, one or two nights can wipe you out for a while, and the effects can sneak up on you without you fully realizing it. We think it’s worth taking care to try to ensure that you get a good night’s sleep every night.